Most willow species grow and thrive close to water or in damp places, and this theme is reflected in the legends and magic associated with these trees. The moon too recurs as a theme, the movement of water being intimately bound up with and affected by the moon. For example, Hecate the powerful Greek goddess of the moon and of willow, also taught sorcery and witchcraft, and was ‘a mighty and formidable divinity of the Underworld’. Helice was also associated with water, and her priestesses used willow in their water magic and witchcraft. The willow muse, called Heliconian after Helice, was sacred to poets, and the Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches on his adventures in the Underworld. He was also given a lyre by Apollo, and it is interesting to note that the sound boxes of harps used to be carved from solid willow wood.
Willow’s ability to quickly regrow from coppiced or pollarded trees, growing several feet in one season, or the ease with which a new tree can be grown merely by pushing a healthy branch cutting into the soil (even upside down!), has come to symbolise renewal, growth, vitality and immortality in other parts of the world such as China.
In Britain the more recent, ‘Christianised’ use of willow to symbolise grief probably originated with Psalm 137:
‘By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the willow-trees
we hung up our harps.’
(Biblical scholars point out that these ‘willow-trees’ were probably Euphrates poplar (Populus euphratica) and not the weeping willows (Salix babylonica) which originated in China.) During the 16th and 17th centuries the association became particular to grief suffered by forsaken lovers, who also adopted the custom of wearing a cap or crown made of willow twigs and leaves. By the nineteenth century illustrations of weeping willows were commonly used as ornaments on gravestones and mourning cards. Willow boughs were also used to decorate churches in Britain on Palm Sunday instead of largely unavailable palm leaves.
Country folk have been familiar with the healing properties of willow for a long time. They made an infusion from the bitter bark as a remedy for colds and fevers, and to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatism. Young willow twigs were also chewed to relieve pain. In the early nineteenth century modern science isolated the active ingredient responsible, salicylic acid, which was also found in the meadowsweet plant. From this the world’s first synthetic drug, acetylasylic acid, was developed and marketed as Aspirin, named after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spirea ulmaria.
The Gaelic words for willow are shellach, or suil, and feature in Scottish place names such as Achnashellach in Ross-shire, Glensuileag in Inverness-shire and Corrieshalloch on Speyside. These names would have referred to both the presence of willow and the attendant industries utilising the willow’s gifts.
Uses for willow wood included house building, coracle frames, and charcoal manufacture. Willow’s ability to absorb shock without splintering is still utilised in the making of cricket bats and stumps (note also the similarity between ‘wicket’ and ‘wicker’), and the Dutch traditionally make their clogs from willow wood. The wood is good for turning and Celts made their chariot wheel spokes, and Gypsies their clothes pegs, from it. The bark was used to make a reddish-brown dye, for tanning leather and as fodder for livestock.
But wicker-work is what willow is probably most famous for, using the smaller osiers and coppiced or pollarded willow. Before the advent of plastics, willow was widely used to make a variety of containers, from general basketry to specialised applications such as lobster pots and bee hives. A 6th century basket discovered by archaeologists on Shetland, and apparently made of willow, used the same weaving techniques as those still practiced in Scotland.
Today the weaving of willow is enjoying a resurgence, and is being applied to novel situations such as landscape sculptures, outdoor seating and children’s play huts. All of these are being made from live cuttings, grown in situ, to be woven and sculpted into living structures, bringing together willow’s vitality and utility to enhance new, often urban, settings.